Review: They Call Me Babu
- Sandra Beerends’ feature-length documentary tells a valuable tale of self-determination using unique archive footage from the Dutch East Indies
Built up entirely from archive footage, Sandra Beerends’ They Call Me Babu manages to tell an intriguing story that feels as relevant today as it ever was. Her feature-length documentary tells the story of Alima, an Indonesian woman who talks about her life as a nanny for a Dutch family in the Dutch East Indies right before the Second World War. Encompassing themes such as self-determination, women’s rights and oppression, the film is a valuable document allowing us to rethink the way we view history. Beerends, who partly has Indonesian roots herself, managed to wipe the footage clean and remove decades’ worth of dust to show us its striking relevance – for a global audience in general and the Dutch one in particular. They Call Me Babu world-premiered at the 32nd International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), where it is also duking it out in the Competition for Dutch Documentary.
In the times of the Dutch East Indies, it was common practice for Dutch families to shoot home videos for friends and family so that they could see what life in the colony was like, showing off their children, the abundance of tropical fruits and the exotic peculiarities. Sitting at the sides of the frame one would often see the maid or nanny, at the time nicknamed “Babu”. It is not a native word, but a contraction of the words ba for young woman and bu for mother, introduced by the Dutch. Nowadays, it is a word with a negative connotation, used only in a colonial context.
“Mama, you taught me that girls have to stand up for themselves and dream about a grand life,” we hear from the mouth of Alima, a babu who, in her teenage years, goes to work for a Dutch family. The meaning of this sentence changes gradually as the film unfolds. In the familiar world of the Dutch colony, it encourages her to take on the position of the babu. She even takes a trip with the family to Holland, the fabled country she has heard so much about, all the while taking care of the youngest son, Jantje. Then the war starts and the Japanese occupy her country, and she falls in love with Kibut, who is active in the resistance. She gradually comes to realise that they, as a people, have a right to self-determination – as much of a right as the Dutch have to be free from the Nazis. Her host family, along with her dear Jantje, are taken to Japanese camps, and although she misses them a great deal, she also realises that there has been something fundamentally wrong about the Dutch colonial presence. It is a perspective that lays bare the one-sidedness of colonial history, as taught in schools in the Netherlands and other Western countries.
Beerends shows us the sheer power of creative storytelling, as the 500 different image sources she used mean so much more today than they did at the time they were shot. Beneath the factual telling of events is a strong emotional layer that is easy to relate to, allowing us to understand the full complexity through experience, rather than cognition. They Call Me Babu is a unique collage that is much stronger than the mere sum of its parts.
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